My favourite European city breaks are: Lisbon, Saint Petersburg, Gdansk, Lviv and the latest addition to the family: Vilnius. Because guys: the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is awesome. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that we had just come from Belarus where it was raining for five days straight and that the minute our bus entered Vilnius the sun started to shine. It clicked right off the bat. Vilnius has everything to offer for a great city trip: the historic center is filled with beautiful architecture, the city has a fun quirky side, loads of cafes and just outside the city there is also a fairytale castle. I mean, what are you waiting for? In this post I will give you seven reasons why you should visit Vilnius.
1. Vilnius is a perfect city to get lost in
Number one reason why Vilnius should be your next city trip: the old town is a feast for the eyes. Ditch the old city map and start wandering around without a plan. Whatever street or alley you pick, I guarantee you that every time a beautiful church, a charming square or a cosy cafe will pop up. The old center of Vilnius is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has over 1.200 historical buildings. So there is something stunning waiting for you at every street corner.
I adore wandering, but I can imagine that not everyone has the time (or patience) to wander for hours without a plan. If you’re short on time, or you want to go straight to the good stuff, these are the streets I recommend you to check out:
- Pilies street
- Gediminas Avenue
- Ausros Vartu street
- Didžioji street
Or let a local show you the best sights in the city and and join a ‘Vilnius Free Tour’. This tip-based city walk departs daily at 10:00 and 12:00 at the town hall (Didžioji g. 31).
2. Establish a record ‘spot a church’ in one day
Vilnius is definitely a church city. Churches y mas! The city center is home to almost 30 beautiful churches. No wonder it looks like there’s a church on every street corner. Ticking off every church is a bit too exhausting for a city break, so let me tell you which churches I think you should visit:
- Saint Anne’s Church (with the Bernardine Church in the back): the dark red front of the Saint Anne’s Church is made up of 33 different types of bricks. Insanely beautiful, especially at sunset!
- Saint Casimir’s Church: the pink church in the center with a cute little crown on the tower. Such a sweet church!
- Cathedral Basilica: perhaps the most important church of Vilnius.
- Saint Michael’s Church: at its best from a side street (see photo header).
3. Vilnius is a medieval jewel
Vilnius is one of the largest preserved medieval towns in northern Europe. During the Middle Ages, the center of Vilnius was surrounded by a thick city wall. People could only get in and out through one of the nine city gates. Nowadays, one gate is left: the Gate of Dawn. And this light-blue gate is gorgeous! At the top of the gate, there is a little chapel with a golden icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
More beautiful medieval heritage in Vilnius: the Bell Tower and the Gediminas Castle Tower. The Bell Tower was once part of the city wall, but it made more sense to convert it to a bell tower for the Basilica Cathedral at the Vilnius Cathedral Square. The Gediminas Castle Tower was once part of the three-part Vilnius Castle. The tower belonged to the Upper Castle. In addition, you had a Lower Castle (this is now the National Museum) and a Crooked Castle (gone, burned down in the fourteenth century). For a beautiful city panorama, I recommend you to climb the slightly uncomfortable pebble steps up to the Gediminas tower. For €5 per person you can climb the actual tower, or you can enjoy the city view on top of the hill for free.
4. Tick off two countries in one city break: Užupis and Lithuania
Užupis is one of the oldest districts of Vilnius. This used to be a neighborhood with a thriving Jewish community, but after 1945 people avoided Užupis. The neighborhood was a no-go zone and known for violence and crime. In 1991, Lithuania declared itself independent and this initiated a change for Užupis. The district attracted more and more artists looking for cheap living space. Moreover, the art academy was just around the corner, so it was a win-win for the artists. Thanks to this new energy, the Užupis district is now one of the most popular areas in Vilnius.
Fun fact: Užupis is not only a district, it is a self-proclaimed republic complete with its own constitution, president, national anthem and four flags (one for each season). Until recently, it even had an army. On 1 April 1997, the inhabitants of the district founded the republic of Užupis. What started out as a joke became a serious call for freedom and human rights. And so the republic of Užupis was born. Don’t worry, you can just go in visa-free! If you’re lucky, you can even have your passport stamped.
What to do in Užupis:
- Read the constitution: reading the constitution sounds super boring, but not in Užupis. The 41 city rules, focused on the right for freedom, contain for the most part playful rules. For example: “Everyone has the right to be lazy and eat stroopwafels (Dutch cookies)” or “A dog has the right to be a dog”.
- Check out Tibet Square: one of the first things I saw in Užupis were Tibetan prayer flags. I thought it was a pretty crazy sight, because what has Lithuania to do with Tibet? But when you consider that Užupis is all about the right to freedom, the political message of this square suits quite well with the district.
- Quirky art at the Užupis Art Incubator: a unique art project started by local students in the nineties with the aim to provide a gallery for young artists. The gallery is focused on thinking outside the box and therefore you will find some interesting art pieces here. It is located on the banks of the river Vilnia and on a sunny day the locals like to come here to chill or read a book near the water.
- Moving street art: in Užupis street art comes to life! Download the app (R)estart Reality and head to the Užupis Art Incubator gallery. Look for the black and white wall paintings, start the app, point your phone at the wall and the painting comes to life on your phone. Pretty awesome!
Vilnius has a lot of street art. I saw many more wall paintings in Užupis and other parts of town. In this article I show where to find the best street art in Vilnius.
5. Vilnius is great for vegans & vegetarians
All that walking left me hungry. Fortunately, Vilnius offers plenty of food options, also for vegans and vegetarians. The traditional Lithuanian cuisine didn’t appeal to me, because most of it consists of potatoes, cheese and meat. I am a vegan, so I skipped the traditional dishes. Also, I have had my fair share of borscht, vareniki/pierogi, blini and draniki during my previous travels in Eastern Europe. Luckily, Vilnius offers more than the traditional cuisine only. These were my favorite cafes:
- RoseHip Bistro: this vegan bistro offers dishes like roasted vegetables with pink humus or a tasty burger. As the name suggests: expect a lot of pink. Address: B. Radvilates g. 7.
- Jurgis ir Drakonas: a local chain that makes fantastic Neapolitan pizza. There is also a vegan option. Address: multiple locations, for example on the Pilies g. 28.
- Chaika: how often can a vegan eat a cake? Speaking from experience: that’s is pretty rare. So when I see a vegan cake, I’m going to eat it. The cakes at Chaika are delicious, and in the summer they also serve vegan ice cream. Address: Totoriu g. 7.
6. Imagine yourself king or queen at Trakai Island Castle
Done with hectic urban life? Get out of the city and visit a fairy tale castle: the Trakai Island Castle. This castle dates back to the fourteenth century and is built on a small island in Lake Galve. It used to be an important strategic point, later became a prison and today it’s one of the country’s most popular sights. An entrance ticket costs €8 per person. We chose not to go in, because €16 was a bit on the pricey side for us. Moreover, usually castles are more impressive on the outside than on the inside.
The most budget-friendly way to travel from Vilnius to Trakai is by train or bus. The price for a bus or train ticket is the same: €1,80 per person for a one-way ticket (2019). In terms of travel time, the train is a little bit faster, but the bus runs more often. You can buy train tickets at the station or online, bus tickets can be purchased from the driver. In both cases you will be dropped off 3 kilometers outside the village of Trakai. This sounds far, but it is actually kind of great. I got to see so much more of Trakai, for example the beautiful wooden houses, the lake and a beautiful church. I did not mind the walk at all!
7. Unique accommodation: go camping in the middle of the city
Sold on Vilnius but no clue where to sleep? Then I have a tip for you. We slept at a campsite near Užupis. The name: Downtown Forest Camping. Technically, it’s not a forest, it’s more of a big garden. And full disclosure: I hate camping, but I still booked this place for my stay in Vilnius. Why you ask? They offer awesome garden chalets. Perfect for indoor people like me! I have my own place, but I am still close to the outdoors without having to sleep on the ground. Moreover, they offer free unlimited coffee and tea every morning. I’m not sponsored to say this, I’m just a fan and like to share good recommendations.
And those are my seven reasons why you should go to Vilnius. Have you planned your next city break yet?